A proposal to ban nitrous oxide, commonly known as laughing gas, has sparked a debate between health experts and the UK government. Fifteen neurologists and health professionals have voiced their concerns in a letter to the government, arguing that criminalising the possession of this recreational substance could discourage users from seeking essential medical treatment.
Despite their plea, the government remains steadfast in its intention to enforce the ban. The health experts warn that such a move may inadvertently exacerbate the stigma surrounding nitrous oxide users, while the number of patients admitted to hospitals with nitrous oxide-related issues continues to rise.
One of the most severe consequences of heavy nitrous oxide use is severe nerve damage due to a severe B12 deficiency. This can result in painful numbness in the fingers and toes, potentially leading to mobility issues or even paralysis. Additional symptoms may include bowel or bladder problems, incontinence, and erectile dysfunction.
While the supply of nitrous oxide for recreational purposes is already prohibited, simple possession remains legal. However, the government has proposed an amendment to criminalise possession, which could take effect by the end of the year. Violators could face up to two years in prison, an unlimited fine, or both.
In their letter to the Minister for Policing, the health experts argued that criminalising possession would not yield health benefits for patients. Leading medical professionals have also reported an increase in nitrous oxide-related cases.
Dr. Alastair Noyce, a Professor of Neurology and Neuroepidemiology, authored the letter, expressing concerns about the potential creation of a “fear of a criminal record” among users. He pointed out that such fears might lead individuals to delay seeking medical attention, resulting in long-term harm. Dr. Noyce also emphasised the lack of evidence that criminalisation would reduce neurological harm or positively impact individuals’ educational and employment opportunities.
The health experts called for a national education campaign in schools and the media to ensure the public is informed about the risks associated with nitrous oxide use. Despite these pleas, the government remains committed to the ban, outlining a “clear strategy” within its anti-social behavior action plan to address nitrous oxide misuse.
Support for the ban comes from figures like Mohammad Ashfaq, who runs the grassroots organisation Kick It. He believes that the proposed ban will help law enforcement in their efforts to combat nitrous oxide misuse, which has been challenging to eradicate completely. Ashfaq emphasised that the law would provide clarity and address community frustrations.
In response to the controversy, a government spokesperson reiterated their commitment to the nitrous oxide ban and the associated anti-social behavior action plan to tackle misuse. The debate surrounding the ban underscores the complex and multifaceted nature of substance regulation in the UK, balancing concerns about public health, criminalisation, and the effectiveness of enforcement measures.